Archive for the ‘Medieval Agriculture’ Category

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bread from Heaven

Wheat Sheaf in Langon Chapel Detail from The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard

Above, left: The holiday decorations at The Cloisters are made by hand from plants linked with the celebration of Christmastide in the Middle Ages. A sheaf of wheat—an allusion to the eucharistic symbolism of the “altar-manger” and the transformation of the Christ Child into the bread of the Mass—stands near the altar frontal in Langon Chapel. Right: In the central panel of Gerard David’s triptych Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, the wheat ears that fill the manger and spill from the sheaf in the foreground are shown in meticulous detail.

A strong link was made between wheat and the Nativity early in the history of Christian exegesis, based on the symbolism of the Eucharist. The identification was founded in the interpretation of such scriptural passages as John 6:41, in which Jesus identifies himself as “the bread come down from heaven.” In his homily on the Nativity, Homilia VIII in die Natalis Domini, the sixth-century Doctor of the Church, Saint Gregory the Great, translated “Bethlehem” as “house of bread” and expounded the transformation of the Christ Child from hay into wheat. These interpretations—as well as the practice of placing consecrated bread in the relic of the Holy Crib installed at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the liturgical manger plays that originated there and were revived and popularized by Saint Francis of Assisi—emphasized the sacramental aspect of the birth of Christ. The pictorial tradition of showing the infant Jesus lying on a heap of grain is found in representations of the Nativity from the end of the fifteenth century. As Maryan Ainsworth notes, the composition of the central panel in Gerard David’s early sixteenth-century triptych, in which Mary and Joseph adore the Christ Child, owes something to the Nativity by Hugo van Der Goes (see image) in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, painted about 1480. For a list of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian paintings with similar iconography, see Mirella D’Ancona Levi.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Ainsworth, Maryan W. Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.

Levi D’Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.

Schiller, Gertrud. Iconography of Christian Art. Translated by Janet Seligman. Vol. 1. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1971.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Coming In From the Cold

Maidenhair Ferns_small Oranges and Pomegranates_small

Potted plants too tender to spend the winter in Bonnefont garden are trucked inside and brought up to Cuxa cloister, which is glazed in mid-October. Mediterranean plants such as bitter orange, myrtle, and bay laurel spend the cold season in the sunny arcades and are brought back out to the herb garden when the glass comes down in mid-April. Left: A wagonload of maidenhair fern in the arcade of Bonnefont garden. Right: oranges and pomegranates en route to Cuxa cloister.  Photographs by Carly Still

While the medieval plant collection at The Cloisters includes a good number of northern European species, a great many of the plants grown in the Bonnefont Cloister herb garden are Mediterranean in origin. Not all of these southern European plants are hardy for us here in New York City. The garden is a sheltered U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 7, and the fig tree (Ficus carica), poet’s jasmine (Jasminum officinale), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) do just fine outdoors, but more tender species like bitter orange (Citrus aurantium), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), and dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) must be brought inside and protected from the cold. Read more »

Friday, March 4, 2011

Coppicing and Pollarding

Coppice stool

Many relics of medieval woodland management techniques, such as this coppice stool, can be found in the British countryside.

Although evidence of medieval systems of woodland management can be found throughout Europe, the following post is based on studies of ancient British woodlands and their management, especially as discussed in the work of Dr. Oliver Rackham, an acknowledged authority in the field. Updated versions of many of Dr. Rackham’s older works have been revised and reprinted. His most recent book, Woodlands, was published in 2009. The term “ancient woodland” is used to designate areas that have been continuously wooded since at least 1600 and is thus applied to woodlands of medieval date.

Pollarding, a technique of woodland management discussed in last week’s post, afforded a valuable renewable resource. A pollarded tree was pruned back drastically at the top, above the browse line, in order to protect the crop from grazing animals in areas where livestock had access to the trees. Read more »

Friday, February 25, 2011

Woodswoman, Pollard That Tree

Frances Reidy at work Detail of the pruning A pollard head

A medieval technique of hard pruning, known as pollarding, is used on the four crab apple trees in Cuxa Cloister garden to control the height of the trees and the spread of their canopies. The pruning is done in late winter, while the trees are still dormant.

Above: Frances Reidy, our arborist, cutting last spring’s growth back to the same “head” as the previous spring’s. This successive hard pruning produces the “knuckles” of tissue characteristic of pollarded trees. This is the third year in which the technique has been applied; the knuckles at the head of the branches will become more pronounced as the pollard matures.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Pigs and Pannage

November calendar page from the Belles Heures thumbnail November activity thumbnail The Zodiacal Sign of Sagittarius thumbnail

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for November from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Sagittarius. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

“September’s Husbandrie” from Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, 1580.

The term “mast” was applied to any autumnal fodder on which pigs might forage, including beechnuts, haws (the fruit of the hawthorn), and acorns, as well as fungi and roots. Acorns were the principal fodder in fattening up swine to be slaughtered and salted for winter food. While green acorns contain toxins that are poisonous to cattle and to people, they are not harmful to pigs. (Pigs were not reared in winter. Once the boar had sired a litter, he was sacrificed. Bacon and hams were cured after the November slaughter. Bacon grease replaced butter as the principal fat in the winter diet.)

“November’s Husbandrie” from Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, 1580.

A swineherd carrying a pole or stick to knock down acorns for his pigs frequently appears in the calendar tradition as the activity proper to November, as in the detail from the Belles Heures shown above. A very similar scene is depicted on the November page of the Très Riches Heures.

The same subject is drawn in ink on the lower left margin of the November calendar page of the Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, currently on display in the Treasury at The Cloisters. Jeanne, queen of France, retained the right to the income from the harvest of acorns in the forest of Nogent for her lifetime.

jeanne november calendar_detail

Jean Pucelle (French, active in Paris, ca. 1320–1334). Detail from the November calendar page from The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, ca. 1324–1328. Grisaille and tempera on vellum; 3 1/2 x 2 5/8 in. (8.9 x 6.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.2). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

In medieval forest law, certain rights and privileges were afforded the tenants on the lord’s woodlands; the term “pannage” was used to designate both the practice of bringing pigs to the wood to forage for mast, and the right or privilege to do so. The term could also be applied to payment made to the owner of the woodland in exchange for this privilege, or to the owner’s right to collect payment, or to the income accruing from the privilege.

In England, where the tradition of foraging swine in oak forests was an important part of the agricultural cycle, the Saxon rights of pannage were much reduced by the Norman enclosure of game preserves, and the Saxon diet was greatly reduced when their pigs were deprived of acorns.

Acorns contain fat, carbohydrates and protein. The acorns of the common oak of Britain and northwestern Europe (Quercus robur) have a high tannin content and are too bitter to be palatable, but have been eaten in times of famine. They were ground into a meal that afforded a coarse bread. Alan Davidson notes that both acorns and bread or cakes made from them have remarkable keeping powers.

The Mediterranean holm oak (Quercus ilex var. rotundifolia) bear acorns that are much sweeter, and these are still enjoyed in Spain and Portugal, much as chestnuts are. It is probably the acorns of this species, when roasted and eaten with sugar, that are recommended as a health-giving food in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a late medieval health handbook based on an eleventh-century Arabic source.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:
Arano, Luisa Cogliati. The Medieval Health Handbook: Tacuinum Sanitatis. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Husband, Timothy B. The Art of Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

Pérez-Higuera, Teresa. Medieval Calendars. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sowing Broadcast

October page from the Belles Heures thumbnail October Activity: Sowing Wheat thumbnail The Zodiacal Sign of Scorpio thumbnail

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for October from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Scorpio. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

The annual cycle of cereal production that dominates the depiction of the agricultural year in the medieval calendar tradition began and ended with the sowing of seed corn. Scenes of tilling and sowing typically appear as the activity proper to October, before the arrival of the winter rains. While a plow was used to turn the earth in spring, a harrow was used to prepare the ground in autumn, as in the Très Riches Heures. The harrow was also used to cover the seed once it had been sown. In the Belles Heures, as in many other calendars, a single sower represents the month, although a harrow appears at the edge of the scene.

In The Medieval Calendar Year, Bridget Henisch notes that the sower shown in calendar scenes is always male, although a woman may be shown walking behind him with a sack. Neither do women plow, but a female might be shown guiding the horse who draws the harrow.

In her masterly description of the art of sowing seed broadcast, Dorothy Hartley emphasizes that it was highly skilled and responsible work. (Depending on the grain and the weather, sowing was done either immediately after plowing or harrowing. ) The field to be sown was measured, and the seed was measured into open sacks that were set out at each end of an open furrow. The sower then walked smoothly and steadily down the furrow, counting his steps and keeping them even for the length of the field, guiding his feet down two adjacent plow lines. He then reckoned how many steps he must take to each handful of grain he would cast. (Field workers would not have been able to write or to count above ten, so agricultural tallies were kept by reckoning in four sets of five fingers, making a score.)

If a man sowed from a basket hanging from his neck, he might sow with his right and left hand in alternation. If he used a sowing cloth or apron, he would cast with one hand only and only to one side as he went up or down the furrow. Once the rhythm that determined how many handfuls of seed would be matched to the number of steps needed to cover the ground was established, it remained constant for the whole field. However, a skilled worker might be asked to sow more thinly or thickly in different parts of the field, which might be drier or damper in one place than another. He did this not by changing the rhythm, but by taking a little larger or smaller handful of grain.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:
Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Henisch, Bridget Ann. The Medieval Calendar Year. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Pérez-Higuera, Teresa. Medieval Calendars. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.

Husband, Timothy B. The Art of Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Threshing It Out

August page from the Belles Heures August Activity thumbnail The Zodiacal Sign of Virgo

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for August from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Virgo. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Sometimes busy, bound by rings,
I must eagerly obey my servant,
Break my bed, clamor brightly
That my lord has given me a neck-ring.
Sleep-weary I wait for the grim-hearted
Greeting of a man or woman; I answer
Winter-cold. Sometimes a warm limb
Bursts the bound ring, pleasing my dull
Witted servant and myself. I sing round
The truth if I may in a ringing riddle.

—Anglo-Saxon riddle from The Exeter Riddle Book, translated by Craig Williamson

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Making Hay

June page from the <em>Belles Heures</em> June Activity: The Reaper The Zodiacal Sign of Cancer

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for June from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Cancer. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

‘Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot . . .

—Andrew Marvell, “The Mower, Against Gardens”

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